2020: Interesting year! I feel like a few things happened.

And despite all those, um, things, plenty also happened in the quality footwear world. Far more than I certainly could’ve anticipated given the circumstances. So Ticho and I ran them down in the Shoecast episode below—or if you prefer to hear us via the voice inside your head, we’ve provided some good reading-words below as well.

And you can listen to this and every Shoecast episode on:

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Or check out the Shoecast archives right here

 

This episode was sponsored by Nicks Handmade Boots, one of the most capable, indestructible boots available anywhere—and damn stylish too!


That Darned Pandemic Threatens to Ruin Everything, But Makers and Shops Persevere and Innovate—and the Community Grows Stronger

I remember talking to some bootmakers and shop owners in March, when things started to get weird. And then again in April, when uncertainty was rampant. And then again in May, and June, and July, when shutdowns were in full force everywhere. Production slowed or stopped. Cutting-edge safety protocols had to be installed in factories whose charm partially derives from the fact that they haven’t changed a thing in decades. The idea of an order getting to a shop by a time specified in January became near-fiction.

There were certainly frustrations all around—but nobody panicked. The industry persevered, and in my eyes, came out better and more united for it.

Makers figured out new workflows with short staffs but rarely lost a spec of quality. Standard & Strange ushered customers their purchases with a six-foot hook-equipped pole shot out the storefront door—and along with others devoted themselves to do-gooding of all kinds, in their communities and beyond. Footwear enthusiasts, now unable to take vacations or blow tons of cash at fancy hot dog restaurants staffed by Tichoblanco, and bored out of their minds at home, used their workdays to research the next pair that would give them a jolt of happiness, even if they wouldn’t get the wear they deserve for months. And we all came together even further as a community—everyone had something to take our minds off the mess, a positive jolt to send through our system whenever we needed it. And that was good.

And overall, the rugged footwear industry benefited from suddenly being more appealing to suddenly office-less workers everywhere. If you don’t need to impress the client with your fancypatinaoxfords, why not get some boots to love and beat up in the woods and like drop an entire plate of really saucy ribs on (not a personal story at all) and not care in the least?

Onderhoud Handmade x Stitchdown Lineman Boot

The Continued Rise and Improvement of Indonesian Bootmakers

The idea of quality Indonesian bootmakers isn’t new—stalwarts like Sagara and Santalum have been hand-welting quality products for a decade now. Benzein makes what is definitely on the short list for the best wholecut Chelsea boot in the entire game. But the strides Indonesian artisans have made in the last year have been, by any measure, astounding and honestly inspiring.

When I pulled on my first couple pairs of Onderhoud Handmade boots in late 2019 (on the recommendation of none other than Østmo Boots master craftsman/beardsman Lars Jensen), I was immediately lovesick. But in a good way! If that’s possible. Point is, I really liked them. But the gap between those boots—which remain immensely satisfying to this day—and my pair of 7-inch LCV01 lineman boots represent the gains made by so many bootmakers in (fun fact alert!) the world’s fourth most-populous nation.

Foam-rubber insoles—comfy to be sure, but not that wonderful This Is a Rugged Handmade Boot-type comfort—have been replaced with full leather footbeds. Upper patterns have been relentlessly developed, sometimes to near perfection. Local leather, which itself has made very admirable strides and is wonderfully accessible in terms of price but simply can’t go toe-to-toe with the world’s top tanneries, is now offered alongside horsebutt from Italy’s Maryam, shell cordovan from Japan’s Shinki Hikaku, and the Wickett & Craig harness leather on the LCV01s that Onderhoud’s Rizky and I designed together.

GMTOs flourished, and individual MTOs displayed a complete absence of creative boundaries. Here are just a few of my favorites from the year.

 

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The Arrival of Flame Panda

In December of 2019, I found a simply astounding boot on a #cordovan hashtag. The next day I posted photos of it and a few others from the small maker in rural China. Minutes later (ok, maybe days), at least three people I personally know had ordered boots from the man named Peng, and Flame Panda was on its way to becoming perhaps the hottest bootmaker of 2020.

That early-riser crew ordered the boots half-blind. They could see them (so, not blind there), but they couldn’t feel them, had no idea how they were constructed. They were not disappointed. These things are BUILT. When my monkey boots showed up, the box was so heavy I thought Peng had accidentally sent two pair. Nope, just one pair of some of the most monstrously beautiful boots I’ve ever handled in my life.

They were smart, those early risers. Now Peng’s waitlist is about six months long. My advice? Just get in line, and give Peng the chance to make some design choices, possibly in tandem with you, possibly by himself—that’s pretty much what I did. He won’t let you down.

I tend to obsess over boots and shoes that are a little different. Something that’s rooted in the familiar, but nudges at the boundary that is the norms—sometimes gently, sometimes with pretty darn aggressive force—without ignoring or obliterating them altogether. That is Flame Panda through and through. Nothing is quite what it seems. The boots are often more severe than the styles from which they are born, yet somehow infinitely more alluring.

Some of that perhaps derives from Peng’s past, which wasn’t an easy one. I won’t bother to crib from the ultimate source on that—go read the interview conducted by Jake, aka Almost Vintage Style, aka Mr. Style. It’s phenomenal stuff.

Viberg 145 Work Oxford — Tobacco Chamois Reverse - 1035

Viberg Kills Off Classic Models, People Weep, But Hey It’s OK

Bobcat. Chukka. Roper. A whole slew of engineers. Short Hunter. Rigger lace-to-toe boot. The 245 Oxford, which has always intrigued me. My beloved 145 Oxford. All dead. Or hey maybe we’ll actually see them again! But not a ton of them anytime soon, that much is clear.

Brett Viberg is streamlining things in a quest for efficiency, the increased quality that can potentially stem from a factory not twisted in a million different directions, and a lineup that can fulfill his vision of the Viberg of the future: something less workwear and more, well, North American Luxury. There will be casualties along the way. Are Viberg enthusiasts thrilled with these developments? Not in every instance, no. But as I said to someone the other day, there’s always a “next” with Viberg. I’m beyond interested to see what it is this time around.

Stitchdown Shoecast

Stitchdown Launched a Podcast!

This is a blatant plug, correct. But @tichoblancoshoes is a national treasure and we talk about snacks a lot. Footwear too, sometimes. You should listen.

Clinch Boots—Brass Tokyo—Engineer Boot

Engineer Curiosity Turns Into Full-Fledged Engineer Licenses

I’m not going to lie: even a couple years ago when I looked at engineer boots, I contorted my face into a desperately confused look and almost immediately found a completely different boot to stare at. About a year ago, I started to see them differently, as something that I didn’t still quite grasp, or want, but is absolutely beautiful especially when worn heavily. A few days ago, I ordered a pair. I’m ready.

I know that journey of realization isn’t solely my own. While the wise and bold have been onto engineers for quite some time now, I saw seen dozens, probably hundreds of shoefriends take the engineer plunge in 2020, and then keep on plunging and plunging deeper once they realized the unique wonders of the style. I’ll be extremely happy to join them (I’m pretty sure! I’m not gonna lie, I’m still honestly kinda scared!) quite soon. And I’m going to be documenting my entire journey into engineerdom right here on Stitchdown in a running diary.

Parkhurst Delaware Boot

American Footwear Manufacturing Begins to Make a Comeback

In 1867, P.W. Minor started making shoes outside Buffalo in Batavia, NY. In October 2018, the company—bought and sold twice in the last half-decade—laid off its 82 workers. It seemed like yet another harbinger of doom for American shoe manufacturing, the continuation of a decades-long trend of offshoring in a quest for better margins, which in basically every instance has leveled to a significant blow to quality and often has demolished entire brands built over decades and decades.

But in late 2019, Nicole Porter, the former assistant plant manager for P.W. Minor, and whose grandfather owned the company at one point, bought up some Goodyear welt machinery, leased factory space, hired 10 former employees, and got right back to work. A year later Artisan is manufacturing for a half-dozen shoe and boot companies—including Stitchdown favorite Parkhurst—and hopefully foretelling further growth and a continued overall comeback for American footwear manufacturing.


So that’s 2020! It wasn’t all chocolates and roses, no it was not. But in the end, the perseverance of the industry, and the endlessly positive escape that could be found throughout the quality footwear-loving community—well, I like the idea of looking back on 2020 and thinking about those positive aspects as much as possible.